Review: In Other Waters Is an Immersive, If Too Sequential, Sci-Fi Quest

The game offers a refreshing focus on its sense of place rather than ease of play.

In Other Waters
Photo: Fellow Traveler

The alien ecosystem of planet Gliese 677Cc is vast, an underwater expanse of flora and fauna in symbiotic relationships. Some creatures feed from the forest of sentient stalks that grow on a reef, while others thrive within a deep abyss of toxic yellow brine. In British developer Gareth Damian Martin’s In Other Waters, xenobiologist Ellery Vas witnesses and catalogs these new, awe-inspiring forms of extraterrestrial life while searching for the missing Minae Nomura, who mysteriously called Ellery to this remote world.

You play the game as an A.I. within Ellery’s diving suit, a sentient being that can only perceive that beautiful world through a two-color user interface. The things that are so striking to Ellery are dots and lines to the A.I., and they’re brought to life primarily through Ellery’s descriptions, which are displayed in a text readout on the UI alongside the map, depth counter, and meters regulating power and oxygen. The toolset is limited but intentionally so; think Subnautica but filtered through the interfaces of Nauticrawl, Duskers, or your average text adventure. Similar to the life on the planet itself, the A.I. and Ellery are dependent on each other, both of them like separate senses working in concert to navigate the ecosystem.

Even the parts of the interface that feel clunky feed into the methodical experience. It’s hard to multitask since pulling up the inventory will, for example, minimize Ellery’s descriptive text; there’s a certain rickety, tactile satisfaction to paging through the spare menus this way, pinging the environment for scannable objects and switching to the navigation function when you must move quickly (though certainly not too quickly) across the ocean floor.

Beyond the magnificent interface, the world of In Other Waters is thoughtful in a way few other games can claim. The relationships between the plant life and the animals feel considered and sensible, rather than all over the place; there aren’t a lot of obstacles strewn about with explanations dreamt up after the fact. The game offers a refreshing focus on its sense of place rather than ease of play, though the systems for cataloging the world take that ethos far enough that the overall pacing suffers. As you bring samples from the field back to a home base, Ellery’s taxonomy records are gradually and accordingly updated, first with rather verbose descriptions and theories of behavior and then, finally, with a sketch.

While it makes all the sense in the world for the characters to parse information only in a safe place, in practice the delay between collecting in the field and analyzing at home base mostly just inundates the player with an intimidating amount of text all at once. Likewise, the way In Other Waters gifts the player a sketch only after fully updating a creature’s record contradicts how Ellery’s descriptions gradually cultivate a mental image, sometimes upending what you might have pictured in your head. But because a sketch is the most significant prize compared to paragraphs of behavioral theory, the sketch must naturally come last in the manner of familiar-seeming tiered video-game reward hierarchy.

Much of the game’s naturalism similarly conflicts with design that’s overtly linear and story-driven. Though some areas are longer and roundabout with multiple paths, In Other Waters gates progress in rather typical fashion: If you hit a wall, you have to come back to an area later with the appropriate upgrade. The more elusive samples you need to complete a taxonomy are located on side paths, as the optional collectibles of this video game world. If the ecosystem of a game like Subnautica seems much more fantastical by comparison, its open nature nevertheless weaves a more coherent sense of place. For as much as In Other Waters cultivates an impressive, often beautiful feeling of exploration and discovery, its design is too neat and sequential to totally obscure how constructed its “natural” world truly is.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Evolve PR.

Score: 
 Developer: Jump Over the Age  Publisher: Fellow Traveller  Platform: Switch  Release Date: April 3, 2020  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence  Buy: Game

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Review: Resident Evil 3 Is a Slick Hell Ride that Doesn’t Stick in the Mind

Next Story

Review: Animal Crossing: New Horizons Makes You the God of the Sandbox